From Arnold Schwarzenegger to Han Kuo-yu: electoral recalls are gaining ground

Electoral law specialist Joshua Spivak argues a Taiwan presidential candidate's fight to save his mayoralty reflects a global trend
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrates his victory with wife Maria Shriver at the election night festivities, Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills, CA on November 07, 2006.

Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrates his second election victory in 2006 have originally won a recall election in 2003 Joe Seer; Shutterstock

A year ago, Han Kuo-yu, mayor of Kaohsiung was riding high, having just been nominated as the presidential candidate for the main opposition party in Taiwan, Koumintang (KMT). 

Han won the mayoralty in 2018, becoming the first KMT mayor in the city in 20 years. But on 6 June, he is facing a fight for his political life. 

Han is the most high-profile Taiwanese politician to face a recall election. And it is only through the unusual move of asking his supporters not to vote that he has a chance of surviving.

The official reason for the recall is complaints about how Han handled flooding in the town, although, as with many recall attempts, the fact that he was the most prominent Kuomintang official made him a prime target. 

Petitioners had to go through two steps to get the recall this far: they first needed to gather signatures totalling 1% of the eligible voters in the city, which amounted to 22,814 people. 

After clearing that hurdle, they needed to get about 230,000 signatures. Once again, Han’s opponents easily managed this step, getting more than 377,000 signatures.

The attempt against Han should not be seen as a surprise. Recall elections have been an increasingly popular political weapon across the globe. 

Mexico’s President is offering to create a mandatory presidential recall vote.

US recall elections

In the US, where recalls are not allowed for federal officials including the US President, the weapon has been widely threatened against state and local officials.

In the last 17 years, California replaced its governor with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wisconsin had a prominent, though ultimately unsuccessful, recall attempt against its governor.

In Venezuela, former President Hugo Chavez faced and defeated a recall vote. Nicolas Maduro, his increasingly dictatorial successor, appeared to use his power over the courts to get out of a separate recall. The president of Romania has faced a recall vote, as has the mayor of Warsaw, Poland.

There are several reasons why recall attempts appear to have increased.

Technology has beaten down some of the barriers that get voters riled up and interested in doing the work needed to get a recall on the ballot.

It also allows for easier coordination of volunteers for a recall campaign, from signature gathering to campaigning to fundraising. 

One big reason though is that recalls work. In the US, over 60% of recalls result in either a loss by the elected official or a resignation.

Will it work in Taiwan? The country has had numerous recall attempts against officials, but most failed. 

However, a 2016 change in the law has made recalls more feasible.  Unlike in most areas in the US, Taiwan has a rule that requires a certain turnout for a recall to work.

Prior to 2016, at least 50 percent of eligible voters had to go to the polls for the recall vote count. But in 2017, that requirement was sliced in half. Now, only s 25% turnout is required. 

We saw the impact pretty quickly: in 2017 a Shou Yuan village chief was removed. 

That’s not to say the rule is now simple – the New Power Party executive chairman faced a recall vote over its marriage equality law. He survived.

This rule change has led Han to bet that the best strategy is to let the opposition win a resounding victory, but deprive it of his supporters’ coming out to vote. 

Victory by absentee

The result would be victory by absentee. This has worked repeatedly in Taiwan and elsewhere. 

In 2012, Romanian President Traian Basescu survived a vote thanks to a provision requiring that removal can occur if half the country’s electorate vote. Turnout was less than 47%. In 2013, Warsaw Mayor Janna Gronkiewicz also beat back a recall vote when less than 29% of the people voted.

After winning his party’s presidential nomination and at one point leading in the polls, Han has already faced a disappointing 2020. His strategy of having his voters stay home may not seem that exciting. But as past experience shows, it works.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in  New York. His blog can be found here.

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